Theocratic Dominionism Gains Influenceby Frederick Clarkson
No Longer Without SheepReconstructionism had been of interest to few outside the evangelical community until the early 1990s, when its political significance began to emerge. At the same time that the Coalition on Revival provided a catalyst (and a cover) for the discussion, dissemination, and acceptance of Reconstructionist doctrine, these ideas have percolated up through a wide swath of American Protestantism. Nowhere, however, is Reconstructionism (sometimes known as dominionism) having a more dramatic impact than in Pentecostal and charismatic churches.
Pentecostalists, best known for speaking in tongues and practicing faith healing and prophesy--known as "gifts of the spirit"--include televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Oral Roberts. Among well-known charismatics are Pat Robertson and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Historically, Pentecostals have been apolitical for the most part. However, since 1980 much of Pentecostalism has begun to adopt aspects of Reconstructionist or dominion theology. This is not an accident.
Reconstructionists have sought to graft their theology onto the experientially oriented, and often theologically amorphous, Pentecostal and charismatic religious traditions. Following a 1987 Reconstructionist/ Pentecostal theological meeting, Joseph Morecraft exclaimed: "God is blending Presbyterian theology with charismatic zeal into a force that cannot be stopped!"
Gary North claims that "the ideas of the Reconstructionists have penetrated into Protestant circles that for the most part are unaware of the original source of the theological ideas that are beginning to transform them." North describes the "three major legs of the Reconstructionist movement" as "the Presbyterian oriented educators, the Baptist school headmasters and pastors, and the charismatic telecommunications system."
What this means is that hundreds of thousands of Pentecostals and charismatic Christians, as well as many fundamentalist Baptists, have moved out of the apolitical camp. Many have thrown themselves into political work--not merely as voters, but as ideologically driven activists, bringing a reconstructed "Biblical world view" to bear on their area of activism.
This is probably the lasting contribution of Reconstructionism. Whether it is Operation Rescue activists called to anti-abortion work because of Francis Schaeffer's books, or Pentecostals who responded to the politicizing ministry and electoral ambitions of Pat Robertson during the 1970s and 1980s, the politicization of Pentecostalism is one of the major stories of modern American politics.
Indeed, Robertson has been pivotal in this process, mobilizing Pentecostals and charismatics into politics through his books, TV programs, Regent University, the 1988 presidential campaign, and his political organizations--first the Freedom Council in the 1980s and then the Christian Coalition.
Gary North and others see opportunities for Reconstructionism to build its influence through an activist response to crises in established institutions, from the public schools to democracy itself. This "decentralist" activism is not necessarily independent or "grassroots." Political brushfires are "a fundamental tool of resistance" observes North, "but it takes a combination of centralized strategy, and local mobilization and execution." This is precisely what we are beginning to see clearly in the contemporary politics of the Christian Right. From the lawsuits brought by the Rutherford Institute and the American Center for Law and Justice to stealth takeovers of school boards, the effort is to subvert the normal functioning of society in order to make room for the growth of theocratic evangelicalism.
North sees a special role for the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) TV satellite, as the epitome of the political effectiveness of televangelists. He appreciates CBN's ability to magnify local battles, and communicate them to a national audience. "Without a means of publicizing a crisis," writes North, "few pastors would take a stand." Thus, North sees CBN as a key component in increasing the impact of decentralized "brushfire wars" in which the battles over abortion, pornography, zoning for Christian schools, etc., happen in many places at once to strain the system.
Reconstructionism and the Christian RightReconstructionism has played an important role in shaping the contemporary Christian Right, as indicated by the number of Christian Right leaders involved in COR. Reconstructionism's influence is also pronounced in another major hub of the Christian Right: the multifaceted organization of Pat Robertson. Although it denies a Reconstructionist orientation, the Robertson organization is doing exactly what Gary North describes. Robertson's Christian Coalition, for instance, follows a clearly decentralist political plan, directed and encouraged by highly centralized media, educational, and political units.
The Christian Coalition, forged from Robertson's mailing lists and his 1988 presidential campaign, has become the largest and most politically significant formation within the Religious Right. Its comprehensive, locally focused efforts to take over the Republican Party "from the bottom up" and to run "stealth candidates" for local offices have been widely reported and discussed.
Robertson himself seems to lack the long-term vision of Reconstructionist thinkers, but he is clearly driven by a short-term militant "dominion" mandate--the mandate that Christians "Christianize" the country's social and political institutions. He offers a fevered vision of power and "spiritual warfare," perhaps even physical conflict with the forces of Satan in the near future. "The world is going to be ours," he once confided, "but not without a battle, [not] without bloodshed." At a 1994 Christian Coalition national strategy conference, Robertson railed against "Satanic forces," declaring: "We are not coming up against just human beings to beat them in elections. We're going to be coming up against spiritual warfare. And if we're not aware of what we're fighting, we will lose." No longer the exclusive revolutionary vision of Christian Reconstructionist extremists, dominionism has achieved virtual hegemony over many forms of Christian fundamentalism. Historian Garry Wills sees dominionist doctrine not only in those "thorough and consistent dominionists, the followers of Rousas John Rushdoony, who are called Christian Reconstructionists," but also clearly present in Pat Robertson's book The Secret Kingdom.
Robertson works not only dominionism, but Old Testament Biblical law into his books. In The New World Order, Robertson writes that "there is no way that government can operate successfully unless led by godly men and women operating under the laws of the God of Jacob." Impatient with Robertson's public equivocations, Reconstructionist author Gary DeMar describes Robertson as an "operational Reconstructionist." Reconstructionist influences are also evident at Robertson's Regent University. For example, the longtime Dean of the Law School, Herb Titus, though not himself a Reconstructionist, has used Rushdoony's book in his introductory Law course. Texts by North and Rushdoony have been used for years in the School of Public Policy, where Reconstructionist Joseph Kickasola teaches. The library has extensive holdings of Reconstructionist literature and tapes.
Regent University board chair Dee Jepson is a longtime COR Steering Committee member. She was an active advocate for the school's change of name from Christian Broadcast Network University to Regent University, arguing that "Regent" better reflected its mission. Robertson explained that a "regent" is one who governs in the absence of a sovereign and that Regent U. trains students to rule, until Jesus, the absent sovereign, returns. Robertson says Regent U. is "a kingdom institution" for grooming "God's representatives on the face of the earth."
Dee Jepson, in addition to her membership on the COR Steering Committee, is married to former Senator Roger Jepson (R-Iowa), who signed a fundraising letter for Rushdoony's Chalcedon Foundation in 1982.
The Conspiracy FactorOne aspect of Reconstructionism's appeal to the Christian Right is that it provides a unifying framework for conspiracy theories. Gary North explains that: "There is one conspiracy, Satan's, and ultimately it must fail. Satan's supernatural conspiracy is the conspiracy; all other visible conspiracies are merely outworkings of this supernatural conspiracy." Pat Robertson makes a similar argument in his book The New World Order, which all new members of Robertson's Christian Coalition receive.
R. J. Rushdoony states that "The view of history as conspiracy. . .is a basic aspect of the perspective of orthodox Christianity." A conspiratorial view of history is a consistent ingredient of Christian Right ideology in the United States, and is often used to explain the failure of conservative Christian denominations with millennial ambitions to achieve or sustain political power. The blame for this is most often assigned to the Masons, particularly an 18th-century Masonic group called the Illuminati, and, ultimately, to Satan.
Panicked Congregationalist clergy, faced with disestablishment of state churches (and thus their political power) in the 18th and 19th centuries, fanned the flames of anti-Masonic hatred with conspiracy theories. Pat Robertson claims Masonic conspiracies are out to destroy Christianity and thwart Christian rule. Throughout The New
World Order Robertson refers to freemasonry as a Satanic conspiracy, along with the New Age movement. The distortion of reality that can follow from such views is well represented by Robertson's assertion that former Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush are unwitting agents of Satan because they supported international groups of nations such as the United Nations.
Another example of Christian Right conspiracy theory is the writing of Dr. Stanley Monteith, a California activist who is a member of the Christian Coalition and the Coalition on Revival. He is a leading antigay spokesperson for the Christian Right. In his book, AIDS, The Unnecessary Epidemic: America Under Siege,
Monteith argues that AIDS is the result of a conspiracy of gays, humanists, and other "sinister forces which work behind the scenes attempting to destroy our society."
Monteith's book is published by a self-described Reconstructionist, Dalmar D. Dennis (who is also a member of the National Council of the John Birch Society). Monteith's actions underscore his words. At a conference of the anti-abortion group Human Life International, Dr. Monteith, who insists he is not anti-Semitic, shared a literature table with a purveyor of crude anti-Semitic books, as well as books claiming to expose the Masonic conspiracy.
The Wrath of MorecraftIf the Christian Right ever came to power, it's anyone's guess what would actually occur. But it may be instructive to examine what has happened as theocratically informed factions advance locally. In Cobb County, Georgia, for example, where the powerful County Commission is controlled by the Christian Right, homosexuality has been banned, arts funding cut off, and abortion services through the county public employee health plan banned. These actions by the Cobb County Commission made national news in 1993. Rev. Joseph Morecraft, whose very energetic and politically active
Reconstructionist Chalcedon Presbyterian Church draws most members from Marietta, Georgia, the Cobb County seat, provided a clear Reconstructionist view of these events. Asked at the time where he saw Biblical law advancing, he cited "the county where I live," where "they passed a law. . .that homosexuals are not welcome in that county, because homosexuality was against the community standards. The next week," he continued, "they voted on whether or not they should use tax money of the county to support art--immoral, pornographic art, so they make the announcement, not only are we not going to use tax monies in this county to sponsor pornographic art, we're not going to use tax money to sponsor any art, because that's not the role of civil government. And last week," he concluded, "[they voted] that no tax money in Cobb County will be spent on abortions."
Such views pale before Morecraft's deeper views of life and government. In his book, and especially when speaking at the 1993 Biblical World View and Christian Education Conference, Morecraft discussed with relish the police power of the state. His belief in the persecution of nonbelievers and those who are insufficiently orthodox is crystal clear. Morecraft described democracy as "mob rule," and stated that the purpose of "civil government" is to "terrorize evil doers. . . to be an avenger!" he shouted, "To bring down the wrath of God to bear on all those who practice evil!"
"And how do you terrorize an evil doer?" he asked. "You enforce Biblical law!" The purpose of government, he said, is "to protect the church of Jesus Christ," and, "Nobody has the right to worship on this planet any other God than Jehovah. And therefore the state does not have the responsibility to defend anybody's pseudo-right to worship an idol!" "There ain't no such thing" as religious pluralism, he declared. Further, "There has never been such a condition in the history of mankind. There is no such place now. There never will be." Transcendent Acts
Meanwhile, perhaps the most significant accomplishment of the Reconstructionist movement has been the forging of an ideological pole (and an accompanying political strategy) in American politics, a pole by which the Christian Right will continue to measure itself. Some embrace it completely; others reject it. As recently as the early 1990s, most evangelicals viewed Reconstructionists as a band of theological misfits without a following. All that has changed, along with the numbers and character of the Christian Right. The world of evangelicalism and, arguably, American politics generally will not be the same.
Among those Reconstructionists who have already moved into positions of significant power and influence are
two directors of R. J. Rushdoony's Chalcedon Foundation; philanthropist Howard Ahmanson and political consultant Wayne C. Johnson, epitomize the political strategy of the new Christian Right.
Heir to a large fortune, Howard Ahmanson is an important California power broker who has said, "My purpose is total integration of Biblical law into our lives." He bankrolls Christian Right groups and political campaigns, largely through an unincorporated entity called the Fieldstead Company, which has, for example, been a major contributor to Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation. Fieldstead has also co-published, with Crossway
Books, a series of Reconstructionist-oriented books called Turning Point: Christian Worldview Series, which is widely available in Christian bookstores.
Ahmanson and his wife have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting California political candidates, as well as supporting the 1993 California school voucher initiative and the 1992 voucher initiative in Colorado. He has also teamed up with a small group of conservative businessmen, notably Rob Hurtt of Container Supply Corporation, to form a series of political action committees. The direct donations from these PACs and the personal contributions of Ahmanson and Hurtt, coupled with those of other PACs to which the group substantially contributed, amounted to nearly $3 million to 19 right-wing candidates for the California State Senate and various other conservative causes in 1992. A dozen candidates backed by the Christian Right won. Ahmanson himself is a member of the GOP state central committee, along with many other Christian Rightists, who have gained power by systematically taking over California GOP county committees.
A political operative named Wayne Johnson, who had been an architect of California's 1990 term limits initiative, managed the campaigns of several Ahmanson-backed candidates in 1992. The practical impact of term limits is to remove the advantage of incumbency (both Democratic and Republican) which the extreme Christian Right is prepared to exploit, having created a disciplined voting bloc and the resources to finance candidates.
At a Reconstructionist conference in 1983, Johnson outlined an early version of the strategy we see operating in California today. According to Johnson, the principal factor in determining victory in California state legislative races is incumbency, by a factor of 35 to 1. The legislature at the time was dominated by Democrats (and
Republicans unacceptable to conservatives). The key for the Christian Right was to be able to: 1) remove or minimize the advantage of incumbency, and 2) create a disciplined voting bloc from which to run candidates in Republican primaries, where voter turn out was low and scarce resources could be put to maximum effect. Since the early 1990s, Christian Rightists have been able to do both. Thanks to Ahmanson, Hurtt, and others, they also now have the financing to be competitive. Since the mid-1970s, the extreme Christian Right, under the tutelage of then-State Senator H. L Richardson, targeted open seats and would finance only challengers, not incumbents. By 1983, they were able to increase the number of what Johnson called "reasonably decent guys" in the legislature from four to 27. At the Third Annual Northwest Conference for Reconstruction in 1983, Johnson stated that he believed they may achieve "political hegemony. . .in this generation." In 1994, they were not far from that goal. Rob Hurtt won a 1993 open seat by election for State Senate. In 1994, State Senator Hurtt was also the chairman of the Republican campaign committee for the State Legislature, an important power brokering role for a freshman State Senator. The GOP, led by conservative Christians, was only four seats away from majority control in 1994.
A Whole Generation of Gary NorthsStill, it is in the next generation that most Reconstructionists hope to seize the future. "All long-term social change," declares Gary North, "comes from the successful efforts of one or another struggling organizations to capture the minds of a hard core of future leaders, as well as the respect of a wider population." The key to this, they believe, lies with the Christian school and the home schooling movement, both deeply influenced by Reconstructionism.
Unsurprisingly, Reconstructionists seek to abolish public schools, which they see as a critical component in the promotion of a secular world view. It is this secular world view with which they declare themselves to be at war. "Until the vast majority of Christians pull their children out of the public schools," writes Gary North, "there will be no possibility of creating a theocratic republic."
Among the top Reconstructionists in education politics is Robert Thoburn of Fairfax Christian School in Fairfax, Virginia. Thoburn advocates that Christians run for school board, while keeping their own children out of public schools. "Your goal" (once on the board), he declares, "must be to sink the ship." While not every conservative Christian who runs for school board shares this goal, those who do will, as Thoburn advises, probably keep it to themselves. Thoburn's book, The Children Trap, is a widely used sourcebook for Christian Right attacks on public education.
Joseph Morecraft, who also runs a school, said in 1987: "I believe the children in the Christian schools of America are the Army that is going to take the future. Right now. . .the Christian Reconstruction movement is made up of a few preachers, teachers, writers, scholars, publishing houses, editors of magazines, and it's growing quickly. But I expect a massive acceleration of this movement in about 25 or 30 years, when those kids that are now in Christian schools have graduated and taken their places in American society, and moved into places of influence and power."
Similarly, the Christian "home schooling" movement is part of the longterm revolutionary strategy of Reconstructionism. One of the principal home schooling curricula is provided by Reconstructionist Paul Lindstrom of Christian Liberty Academy (CLA) in Arlington Heights, Illinois. CLA claims that it serves about 20,000 families. Its 1994 curriculum included a book on "Biblical Economics" by Gary North. Home schooling advocate Christopher Klicka, who has been deeply influenced by R. J. Rushdoony, writes: "Sending our children to the public school violates nearly every Biblical principle. . . .It is tantamount to sending our children to be trained by the enemy." He claims that the public schools are Satan's choice. Klicka also advocates religious selfsegregation and advises Christians not to affiliate with non-Christian home schoolers in any way. "The differences I am talking about," declares Klicka, "have resulted in wars and martyrdom in the not too distant past." According to Klicka, who is an attorney with the Home School Legal Defense Association, "as an organization, and as individuals, we are committed to promote the cause of Christ and His Kingdom."
Estimates of the number of home schooling families vary enormously. Conservatively, there are certainly over 100,000. Klicka estimates that 85-90 percent of home schoolers are doing so "based on their religious convictions." "In effect," he concludes, "these families are operating religious schools in their homes." A fringe movement no longer, Christian home schoolers are being actively recruited by the archconservative Hillsdale College.
Frederick Clarkson is an author and lecturer who has written extensively on right-wing religious groups from the Christian Coalition to the Unification Church. He is co-author of Challenging the Christian Right: The Activist's Handbook, (Institute for First Amendment Studies, 1992), and is author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Democracy and Theocracy in the UnitedStates, (Common Courage Press, 1996). This article originally appeared in the March and June 1994 issues of The Public Eye.
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